GREEN BAY — The Green Bay Packers coaching staff absolutely is keeping hope alive that quarterback Aaron Rodgers will come back and play for them this season. What that hope is based upon is hard to say.
But coach Matt LaFleur, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and quarterbacks coach/offensive passing-game coordinator Luke Getsy have all privately either talked to or corresponded with the three-time NFL MVP. Rodgers, meanwhile, has given no public indication that his unhappiness with the front office has abated, and he’s not expected to attend the team’s mandatory minicamp, which kicks off on Tuesday.
That leaves LaFleur, Hackett, Getsy and the rest of the offensive coaches in a predicament.
As of now, Rodgers’ plans remain known only to him — and, perhaps, even he hasn’t truly made up his mind on whether he’ll be able to resist the siren’s song of training camp, considering he’s been on a football field in late summer/early fall ever since his 1996 debut with the eighth-grade Chico Jaguars in 1996.
But the coaches know that, despite what some might deride as a Hail Mary prayer that Rodgers shows up for the start of training camp on July 27, they have to have a contingency plan if he doesn’t.
And that not only means deciding who would be their starter on Sept. 12 against the New Orleans Saints — still-developing 2020 first-round draft pick Jordan Love, or recent veteran addition Blake Bortles, who has started 76 career NFL games, including an AFC Championship Game — but also how to design their offense to fit the skill set of the man under center.
For now, LaFleur and his staff are installing the full playbook and experimenting with what clicks with those players who are participating in practice.
“You always try to put the majority of the things that you think you do well as a football team and present them to the guys,” LaFleur said last week after the second open organized team activity practice of the spring. “(But) this is a great opportunity for us to evaluate what are some concepts or plays where (we say), ‘Hey, this doesn’t seem like it’s fitting,’ or, ‘We just need more work at it.’
“By no means are the training wheels on. We’re throwing a lot at all these guys, and it’s a lot to digest. And we just want to continue to see them work and attack it with a great attitude, because I do think that’s how you get the max results.”
A year ago, with all on-field work canceled, LaFleur, Hackett, Getsy and Rodgers convened frequently via Zoom video conferences, turning a negative into a positive as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the offseason into the virtual realm. Throughout last season, Rodgers raved about what a difference the collaborative, everything-on-the-table sessions made after a challenging first year in LaFleur’s offensive system in 2019.
“I think the Zoom meetings in the offseason were definitely my desert rose,” Rodgers said midway through his MVP campaign. “It really gave me a lot of comfort with what we were doing with the offense. I think it really got me and Matt and Nate and Luke on the same page.
“We just spent so many hours talking. I think it was great for us all to really kind of feed into that, get some strength in the grounding of our friendship and our working relationship. I think it’s really changed the way we’ve installed plays and are communicating things. This was a great opportunity to go back and really fine-tune everything, go through everything good last year, what didn’t work, what we want to add to it, what we want to take out.”
The proof was in the production, of course, as Rodgers, who turned 37 in December, started all 16 regular-season games and completed 372 of 526 passes (a career-best and franchise single-season record 70.7% completion rate) for 4,299 yards with 48 touchdowns and five interceptions (121.5 passer rating). His 48 TD passes were a career-high and team single-season record, and his 121.5 rating was the second-highest of his career and second-highest in NFL history, one point off of his NFL-record 122.5 rating in 2011.
Throughout Rodgers’ tenure, with both LaFleur as coach and with Mike McCarthy before him, the coaches would talk about two offenses: The one on paper, and the one as Rodgers ran it.
Realistically, the Packers are likely in deep, deep trouble without Rodgers at the controls, given how far Love has to go and how Bortles has thrown exactly two passes in games that counted since the end of the 2018 season. But as veteran safety Adrian Amos said bluntly at the start of OTAs, “They’re not going to cancel all the games because we don’t have the three-time MVP at quarterback.”
So, do the Packers have to create some sort of alternate-reality offense, a watered-down version of what Rodgers ran last season?
“It’s a great question,” Hackett said. “You always have to have an offense that has enough (in it) and is flexible enough to adjust to your players. That’s what’s so important — and it starts first and foremost with the quarterback.
“You want to have enough stuff in, so then once you find out what he’s good at and what the guys around him are good at, then you can start tailoring it to that team at that time. I mean, every year, things change. Every year, there are different players, there are different people — from the line to the running backs to the tight ends to the wide receivers.”
Well, not so much this year, as the Packers have basically everyone back on offense from a year ago except first-team All-Pro center Corey Linsley (who signed with the Los Angeles Chargers as a free agent) and No. 2 running back Jamaal Williams (who moved to NFC North rival Detroit in free agency). There’s also some question whether five-time All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari will be cleared for the start of the regular season after suffering a torn ACL in his left knee during a Dec. 31 practice late in the regular season.
Of course, Hackett wouldn’t equate finding a replacement for Linsley, as good as he was, to filling the void Rodgers would leave if he didn’t rejoin the team, or opted for retirement (either permanently or temporarily), or if general manager Brian Gutekunst reversed course and actually traded Rodgers — something he’s said multiple times the team will not do.
As a result, Hackett said the approach throughout OTAs has been to give players the entirety of the offense, and he suggested a Rodgers-less training camp and preseason — if it came to that — would basically be a fact-finding mission to figure out what aspects of the scheme matched up best with Love’s or Bortles’ skill set.
“Everything in your playbook, you have to have that ability to pick and choose what’s right for your team at that time,” Hackett said. “Right now, we’re kind of throwing everything at them.
“This is really the hardest time for all these players because when you go into a (regular-season) week, it’s a very limited amount of plays that we’ll be running. Right now, we’re throwing everything at them just to try to see what everybody can do across the board. And then, we slowly start tailoring it down once we get to that first week in the fall.”
For his part, Getsy believes that what Rodgers and the coaches built last offseason will carry over when (or if) he returns to the fold. While his absences from voluntary OTAs and expected absence from the mandatory minicamp have surely curtailed how much they could expand on the existing offense, what they accomplished via Zoom last year might be their saving grace now if they get their star back.
“The benefit of where we’re at (now) from where we were is a huge thing,” Getsy said. “We’ve had two full seasons to iron a lot of that stuff out. I think the direction that we have right now is way more in line with where we want to go and where we want to be when it comes to that first game in September.
“Sure, you would love to have (Rodgers) here and have those conversations again, just to tighten things up. But where we went last offseason, the COVID situation actually may have helped us in the sense of how much time we were able to spend together via that Zoom, just the four of us, and really diving into that.
“That’s why we were able to be so dramatic in how much we changed from (2019) to (2020). So, I feel like we’re more in line with where we want to be. We know where we want to go, we have a pretty good direction of what we are, (and) an idea of what we need to change moving forward — or what we need to tweak in getting ready to go for this season."